More Studies by Columbia Cancer Researchers Are Retracted


Scientists in a prominent cancer lab at Columbia University have now had four studies retracted and a stern note added to a fifth accusing it of “severe abuse of the scientific publishing system,” the latest fallout from research misconduct allegations recently leveled against several leading cancer scientists.

A scientific sleuth in Britain last year uncovered discrepancies in data published by the Columbia lab, including the reuse of photos and other images across different papers. The New York Times reported last month that a medical journal in 2022 had quietly taken down a stomach cancer study by the researchers after an internal inquiry by the journal found ethics violations.

Despite that study’s removal, the researchers — Dr. Sam Yoon, chief of a cancer surgery division at Columbia University’s medical center, and Changhwan Yoon, a more junior biologist there — continued publishing studies with suspicious data. Since 2008, the two scientists have collaborated with other researchers on 26 articles that the sleuth, Sholto David, publicly flagged for misrepresenting experiments’ results.

One of those articles was retracted last month after The Times asked publishers about the allegations. In recent weeks, medical journals have retracted three additional studies, which described new strategies for treating cancers of the stomach, head and neck. Other labs had cited the articles in roughly 90 papers.

A major scientific publisher also appended a blunt note to the article that it had originally taken down without explanation in 2022. “This reuse (and in part, misrepresentation) of data without appropriate attribution represents a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system,” it said.

Still, those measures addressed only a small fraction of the lab’s suspect papers. Experts said the episode illustrated not only the extent of unreliable research by top labs, but also the tendency of scientific publishers to respond slowly, if at all, to significant problems once they are detected. As a result, other labs keep relying on questionable work as they pour federal research money into studies, allowing errors to accumulate in the scientific record.

“For every one paper that is retracted, there are probably 10 that should be,” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, which keeps a database of 47,000-plus retracted studies. “Journals are not particularly interested in correcting the record.”

Columbia’s medical center declined to comment on allegations facing Dr. Yoon’s lab. It said the two scientists remained at Columbia and the hospital “is fully committed to upholding the highest standards of ethics and to rigorously maintaining the integrity of our research.”

The lab’s web page was recently taken offline. Columbia declined to say why. Neither Dr. Yoon nor Changhwan Yoon could be reached for comment. (They are not related.)

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where the scientists worked when much of the research was done, is investigating their work.

The Columbia scientists’ retractions come amid growing attention to the suspicious data that undergirds some medical research. Since late February, medical journals have retracted seven papers by scientists at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. That followed investigations into data problems publicized by Dr. David, an independent molecular biologist who looks for irregularities in published images of cells, tumors and mice, sometimes with help from A.I. software.

The spate of misconduct allegations has drawn attention to the pressures on academic scientists — even those, like Dr. Yoon, who also work as doctors — to produce heaps of research.

Strong images of experiments’ results are often needed for those studies. Publishing them helps scientists win prestigious academic appointments and attract federal research grants that can pay dividends for themselves and their universities.

Dr. Yoon, a robotic surgery specialist noted for his treatment of stomach cancers, has helped bring in nearly $5 million in federal research money over his career.

The latest retractions from his lab included articles from 2020 and 2021 that Dr. David said contained glaring irregularities. Their results appeared to include identical images of tumor-stricken mice, despite those mice supposedly having been subjected to different experiments involving separate treatments and types of cancer cells.

The medical journal Cell Death & Disease retracted two of the latest studies, and Oncogene retracted the third. The journals found that the studies had also reused other images, like identical pictures of constellations of cancer cells.

The studies Dr. David flagged as containing image problems were largely overseen by the more senior Dr. Yoon. Changhwan Yoon, an associate research scientist who has worked alongside Dr. Yoon for a decade, was often a first author, which generally designates the scientist who ran the bulk of the experiments.

Kun Huang, a scientist in China who oversaw one of the recently retracted studies, a 2020 paper that did not include the more senior Dr. Yoon, attributed that study’s problematic sections to Changhwan Yoon. Dr. Huang, who made those comments this month on PubPeer, a website where scientists post about studies, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

But the more senior Dr. Yoon has long been made aware of problems in research he published alongside Changhwan Yoon: The two scientists were notified of the removal in January 2022 of their stomach cancer study that was found to have violated ethics guidelines.

Research misconduct is often pinned on the more junior researchers who conduct experiments. Other scientists, though, assign greater responsibility to the senior researchers who run labs and oversee studies, even as they juggle jobs as doctors or administrators.

“The research world’s coming to realize that with great power comes great responsibility and, in fact, you are responsible not just for what one of your direct reports in the lab has done, but for the environment you create,” Dr. Oransky said.

In their latest public retraction notices, medical journals said that they had lost faith in the results and conclusions. Imaging experts said some irregularities identified by Dr. David bore signs of deliberate manipulation, like flipped or rotated images, while others could have been sloppy copy-and-paste errors.

The little-noticed removal by a journal of the stomach cancer study in January 2022 highlighted some scientific publishers’ policy of not disclosing the reasons for withdrawing papers as long as they have not yet formally appeared in print. That study had appeared only online.

Roland Herzog, the editor of the journal Molecular Therapy, said that editors had drafted an explanation that they intended to publish at the time of the article’s removal. But Elsevier, the journal’s parent publisher, advised them that such a note was unnecessary, he said.

Only after the Times article last month did Elsevier agree to explain the article’s removal publicly with the stern note. In an editorial this week, the Molecular Therapy editors said that in the future, they would explain the removal of any articles that had been published only online.

But Elsevier said in a statement that it did not consider online articles “to be the final published articles of record.” As a result, company policy continues to advise that such articles be removed without an explanation when they are found to contain problems. The company said it allowed editors to provide additional information where needed.

Elsevier, which publishes nearly 3,000 journals and generates billions of dollars in annual revenue, has long been criticized for its opaque removals of online articles.

Articles by the Columbia scientists with data discrepancies that remain unaddressed were largely distributed by three major publishers: Elsevier, Springer Nature and the American Association for Cancer Research. Dr. David alerted many journals to the data discrepancies in October.

Each publisher said it was investigating the concerns. Springer Nature said investigations take time because they can involve consulting experts, waiting for author responses and analyzing raw data.

Dr. David has also raised concerns about studies published independently by scientists who collaborated with the Columbia researchers on some of their recently retracted papers. For example, Sandra Ryeom, an associate professor of surgical sciences at Columbia, published an article in 2003 while at Harvard that Dr. David said contained a duplicated image. As of 2021, she was married to the more senior Dr. Yoon, according to a mortgage document from that year.

The paper had a formal notice appended last week saying “appropriate editorial action will be taken” once data concerns had been resolved. Dr. Ryeom did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Columbia has sought to reinforce the importance of sound research practices. Hours after the Times article appeared last month, Dr. Michael Shelanski, the medical school’s senior vice dean for research, sent an email to faculty members titled “Research Fraud Accusations — How to Protect Yourself.” It warned that such allegations, whatever their merits, could take a toll on the university.

“In the months that it can take to investigate an allegation,” Dr. Shelanski wrote, “funding can be suspended, and donors can feel that their trust has been betrayed.”

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